Choose the best webinar platform for your small business

Learn how you can use informational videos to generate leads and build your business.

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If you’ve spent any time online, you’ve almost certainly seen someone entice people to sign up for or buy something with the pitch “check out my free webinar!” But if you’ve never followed the funnels and watched the presentations, you might not really know what a webinar is (or why it matters).

But in an increasingly distanced world, webinars are becoming more valuable to both you and to your audience. This article will help you get up to speed on the whole “webinar” thing from the first section if you’re a total novice. However, there’s also plenty of detailed information that should benefit even the most experienced webinar hosts out there.

Let’s start with the basics.

What is a webinar and how does it work?

A webinar has different definitions based on who you ask. The primary common threads that run through every definition of a webinar are:

  • Audio and video communication from one or several “speakers”
  • An educational or informative approach

Some webinars may be fixed on the speaker, or they may cut between the speaker’s camera and shots of a slideshow or other presentation. Some webinars don’t show the speaker at all and are presented simply as narration or guided education over a set of slides or other preset images. More advanced ones even allow users or attendees to communicate with the speaker via audio, video, or an embedded live chat feature.

The process of developing a webinar requires structure, focus, and well-researched support for its key arguments or statements.

An effective webinar is often developed well in advance of the webinar event time. Good webinar hosts have attractive visual content and cohesive narrative transcripts practiced and ready to go for the big day.

An effective webinar is often developed well in advance of the webinar event time. Good webinar hosts have attractive visual content and cohesive narrative transcripts practiced and ready to go for the big day.

The type and structure of your webinar(s), and the way you interact with your audience, are entirely up to you. Different businesses and brands have different approaches to their presentations, and these approaches extend to the people who stand in for those brands in public—in this case, that’s you. We’ll cover some of the more common approaches in just a bit.

But right now, you’re probably wondering: are webinars ever going to make me enough money to be worth all this effort? The answer is yes, but...

Mobile phone screen showing the faces of webinar attendees

Do webinars make money?

Here’s the thing. Few businesses use webinars as a way to make money directly. Webinars tend to be offered for free, usually in exchange for an attendee’s contact information.
Your typical webinar is often promoted at specific times, as answers to specific problems. The trick to the success of these “typical” webinars lies in the presenter’s or host’s ability to provide just enough information to lead attendees towards a solution to their problems, while also presenting themselves as an ultimately cost-efficient way of solving those problems. This could involve buying a product, subscribing to a service, or agreeing to outsource the problem to  whichever contractor or firm that hosted the webinars in the first place.
Basically, it’s a mix of education and salesmanship.
It’s rare to see a well-produced free webinar offered without collecting attendees’ contact information. Even those rare paid webinars require some form of contact information to process payments and provide access. And free webinars tend to have little value to the businesses that create them if there’s no long-term plan to capitalize on the effort.

What are some great ways to use webinars for business?

How do businesses typically capitalize on a successful webinar? Here are some popular revenue-generating reasons to run webinars:

Lead generation

Lead generation is a fundamental part of building a successful business. No leads, no sales, no business. Pretty straightforward, right? Businesses that can sell and provide products or services digitally are often more easily able to generate leads via webinars. However, businesses providing physical products or in-person services (such as construction) can still benefit from webinars—if they target the right audience.

Lead-generating webinars often incorporate either product demos, thought leadership, or both into their presentations. Regardless of the approach, the webinar should at least provide enough value to earn your leads’ trust. You should always follow up with attendees after your webinar ends to try to convert them into paying customers. The task is much easier if they already trust you because of the value they got from attending your webinar.

Product demos and/or unveilings

If you’ve got new software or a new product to promote, a webinar tool can be a great way to demonstrate the value of that product. You can use the time to help your leads understand why they should buy from you. Product-focused webinars tend to be more visual than other types of webinars, and often involve detailed demonstrations and/or walkthroughs of the actual product.

Good camera work and video editing skills really come in handy if you’re doing a product-focused webinar.

Promote thought leadership

Thought leadership is more common with service providers than product vendors. The term “thought leader” has been rather overused in recent years. But it’s still widely used as shorthand for “someone who’s an influential expert in a specific profession or niche topic” because it’s a lot easier to say or write.

Bill Gates, for example, has been a top-level thought leader in software since the 1980s. Today, Bill Gates is much more in demand as a philanthropic thought leader since he decided to focus on his nonprofit foundation after the turn of the century.

These are very broad subject areas. Most webinars try to develop narrower thought leadership, such as “software for webinar hosts” or “philanthropy to make sad puppies happy again.” You’d probably have more success with the former subject area than the latter, but if you think there’s an untapped vein of revenue to be found in sad puppy philanthropy, you should certainly consider making a webinar about it.

Thought leadership webinars generally rely more on the speaker’s narration than product webinars. If there are accompanying slides or visuals, a basic level of graphic design can help maintain viewers’ attention, particularly if your webinar is supposed to linger on individual slides or images for extended periods of time.

All this talk about the production value behind webinars might have you thinking, “There’s no way I’ll be able to manage all that stuff live.” Well, you don’t always have to.

What are the different types of webinars?

Webinars are often promoted by allowing registrants to sign up to watch the webinar at specific times, like “next Tuesday at 11:00 a.m. CST.” The webinar that airs next Tuesday at 11:00 a.m. might be live, but these days, most webinars are pre-recorded and replayed repeatedly.

What is a live webinar?

A good live webinar is the closest thing you’ll get to sitting in a lecture hall at a university. These webinar events are simply live streaming feeds of the speaker or presenter, so production values tend to be lower and the approach is often fairly straightforward.

A professional conducting a webinar

If a slideshow accompanies the webinar, it’s typically presented in one of two formats: the full-screen cast or the TED Talk. Full-screen casts on live webinars will show the presenter’s screen, which should be set to the slideshow when the event starts. If you’ve ever watched a decent TED Talk, you’ll know the format—a presenter on a stage, with their slideshow on a screen behind them. Some webinar tools allow presenters to switch between a camera view and screen sharing while live, but it still takes practice to get the timing right.

Pros of live webinars
  • More personalized and interactive

  • Allows presenters to respond to attendees

  • Immediate and current

  • Allows you to adapt to changing situations on the fly

Cons of live webinars
  • Limited availability

  • Lower production capabilities

  • Potential for embarrassment

  • Large time investment for presenter

A good live webinar presenter can make their event feel like the best class you ever had. Speaking live allows you to engage your audience and respond in real time to relevant questions, which can be important when you’re trying to sell high-ticket items or services with large lifetime values.

It’s also easier to build an emotional rapport with your audience through real-time webinars. There’s no way to replicate the connection someone feels to someone who switched a lightbulb on in their heads they never knew was off to begin with.

Going live has a limit: it’s only feasible to do it once (or maybe twice) a day, and you probably won’t want to keep doing the same basic presentation over and over. It doesn’t make sense to come up with original material for webinars every week while trying to manage all the other moving parts of a business, so you won’t really be able to offer too many live webinars. You won’t be able to fix anything in post, because there is no post. And if you mess up on a live streaming webinar, you’ll have to deal with that awkwardness in real time.

A live webinar has a certain cachet, but it also comes with major drawbacks from the perspective of your time. The challenge of being present every time has simply not been worth it for many presenters, which is why most webinars you’ll see these days will be presented as an “on-demand webinar” or similar pre-recorded format.

What is an on-demand or pre-recorded webinar?

As noted earlier, most webinars are simply replays of pre-recorded webinars or speeches. Many marketing services (which includes webinar services) use appointment-scheduling systems that connect with popular calendar apps, such as Google Calendar or Outlook 365.

Employee watching a pre-recorded webinar

Webinar recordings can be started at any time, and automated webinars are a common marketing tactic to amp up the sense of urgency and perception of value around the webinar event. Some marketers have moved away from scheduling webinars to seem “different,” but you may not be able to present your pre-recorded webinar immediately—this would be a true on-demand webinar—based on the service you decide to use to broadcast it.

Some unscrupulous marketers will try to present their webinar recordings as live webinars. It’s pretty easy to tell the difference, because pre-recorded webinars rarely have live chat functionality and tend to offer far more available “sessions” when you go to the scheduling function to pick a time to watch the presentation. Potential customers may not want to do business with someone who’s going to lie about fairly obvious stuff.

Pros of pre-recorded webinars
  • Repeatable, reusable, and/or evergreen content

  • Production and editing are possible

  • Higher quality and greater polish

  • Greater ROI for each pre-recorded webinar

Cons of pre-recorded webinars
  • Impersonal and “automated”

  • Audience can’t engage with or question the presenter

  • Can become outdated or made irrelevant by a news cycle

  • Less emotional connection

If you’ve put together a great presentation, there’s no reason you should only give it once. Just record and upload your pre-recorded webinar (you may want to edit it too) before going “live.” Add some more star wipes! Touch up the third slide in that presentation. Get better lighting and re-shoot.

Whatever works for you, do it. If your content marketing plan will still be relevant in a year or two, there’s no reason not to produce a quality presentation. Quality stands out because so few people will take that little extra step from mediocrity towards creating something genuinely good.

Your local news is always on time and usually pretty polished. That doesn’t mean you care about your local newscasters or what they’re trying to tell you. A pre-recorded webinar is about as personal as your local news. You might recognize the person on the other side of the screen, but you probably have no emotional connection to them.

Certain topics are tricky to discuss in pre-recorded webinars because the “expert” wisdom can shift so quickly. Online marketing, particularly from a technical standpoint, is one field that’s usually quick to overturn any expert consensus. You may wind up re-shooting your webinars with fresh material, or simply creating new webinars, more often than you’d like to remain relevant.

To create any sort of webinar, whether it’s a live thought leadership presentation or a slick on-demand product walkthrough, you’ll need some kind of software or service.

What is “online webinar software?”

Hosting a webinar is more complex than turning on a webcam and hoping people show up. Depending on your needs, you may choose a software platform that allows large numbers of simultaneous participants and high-quality live streams or a reliable on-demand webinar solution that can automatically contact and manage your attendees for days in advance.

The goal of any effective webinar software, from a business perspective, should be to allow you to speak to however many people you expect to show up, without bandwidth or technical issues, and with minimal or no setup involved. An intuitive, easy-to-use, and technically reliable experience is critical to the viewer experience. It won’t matter if you’ve got world-beating insights if attendees find themselves fruitlessly refreshing their browser or fiddling with the settings of an unwanted app.

It also isn’t very useful to host a webinar that asks for nothing in return for your effort, not even an email. Integrated or interconnected lead-capturing functionality is an essential part of any good webinar software. Most software goes further and provides viewership analytics and other data, to allow you to see if your webinars are doing well or correct issues if the webinars are bombing.

From a presenter’s perspective, online webinar software should allow you to manage attendees, respond to their questions (if live), and present any supplemental material such as slideshows or even whiteboard doodles without interrupting your webinar’s flow.

Most of the top online webinar services available are able to feature multiple presenters in the same event via event management tools, which can transform your webinar into a full-scale online seminar like the industry conferences held in arenas. This style of webinar is often known as a virtual summit.

Services tend to focus on either pre-recorded or live webinars (or virtual summits), rather than on both. RingCentral Webinar™ is a video conferencing solution that’s designed and optimized for live webinars and virtual conferences, but can also serve up pre-recorded webinars. Up to 10,000 attendees can watch as many as 500 presenters in a RingCentral Webinar event. Hosts can control the experience before, during, and after the event—there are pre- and post-event email automations and a number of interactive features to share with your attendees.

Can video conferencing and web conferencing solutions be used as webinar platforms?

It can be difficult to distinguish between a webinar and a web conference or live video conference. In fact, many web conferencing tools and video conferencing software solutions do have webinar functionality as well.

RingCentral Video, for example, is often used for video conferencing, but you can expand the number of attendees, control the presentation, and even manage event invites through integrations with calendars and email marketing software.

Video conferencing tools that double as webinar services tend to work best when hosting virtual events online, as they’re designed from the ground up to facilitate large-scale interactions between participants. A service that focuses on just broadcasting pre-recorded webinars is generally less capable of hosting live events, but they might still be effective for ongoing lead generation campaigns featuring single-speaker webinars that share evergreen content.

What are the key features of a webinar service?

At its most basic level, a webinar service should allow you to easily share information with a wider audience in a compelling audio-visual format. Different services focus on delivering different key features, but these are some common functions offered by many webinar providers:

  • Event customization and customizable branding
    When you’re signing up attendees for a webinar, you’re generally directing them to a website or sign-up form first. The registration forms for your webinar should allow for customizable branding, so you can emulate the brand style used across the rest of your company’s web presence, from color scheme to button styling. You should be able to choose which form fields are used in your registration forms, and you should also be able to create custom fields if you need a particular sort of information. A browser-based webinar might allow you to customize the look of the webinar itself as well.
  • Real-time interactive functionality
    Any live webinar service should give you tools to engage your audience. This might include a text-based chat feature, the ability to host audio or video-based live question-and-answer sessions, the ability to create and send real-time attendee polls and surveys, among other functions.
    On the other side of this functionality, the webinar hosts or presenters (that’s you) should be able to control the flow of interactivity between themselves and their audience. If someone’s joined your stream just to cause trouble, you should be able to kick them out. If people are asking too many questions and you can’t get to them all in a timely fashion, you might want to pause the text chat or mute some or all attendees.
  • Screen sharing
    This is a pretty fundamental requirement of any decent webinar service. It’s much easier to sit in front of a webcam and toggle through slides in a presentation than it is to set up a camera to capture a second screen, so you can talk and present simultaneously, TED-style.
    The ability to share your screen with participants is especially important for software vendors, as there’s no substitute for a real-time walkthrough for helping people understand how things work. However, anyone who plans to support their webinar with graphics and visuals should be able to do so. Some webinar software providers have a picture-in-picture option, so you can remain visible in the corner of the screen while the audience gets to focus on the slide you’re talking about.
  • Document sharing
    Not all webinars provide document sharing functionality, but this can be a critical part of less sales-y and more educational webinars. Offering “further reading” or a post-webinar worksheet can deepen audience engagement and get a few on-the-fence folks to decide to work with you after all.
    At the least, offering the slides and transcripts you’ve created for your webinar presentation as post-event downloads will help attendees remember your valuable advice. If you’ve put together a great webinar, your attendees might refer back to those presentation documents repeatedly as they work through the problems you’re trying to help them solve.
  • High-volume sessions
    A webinar isn’t a live video conference. It’s all about the presenters, which means it should be easier to engage a wider audience than you might in a live HD video meeting. RingCentral Webinar, for example, allows you to host up to 10,000 attendees and manage as many as 500 presenters. Few webinars reach these numbers, but virtual summits can easily draw thousands of attendees, which makes webinar solutions with high-volume capabilities doubly useful in the age of social distancing. Who needs a conference hall when you can invite your audience to watch the action at home?
  • Event analytics tools
    Marketing without data is just guessing. Any webinar solution worth its salt should be able to provide you with a good run-down of data gleaned from your session. This data should include webinar registrations, including those who showed up and those who didn’t, chat transcripts, viewership over time, Q&A or poll results, and any other indications of attendee engagement and potential conversion rates.
  • Marketing and CRM integrations
    Webinar software is great, but it’s highly specialized. It’s not designed to collect leads, analyze those leads, and place those leads into your company’s active sales cycle for conversion. This is where the ability to integrate with essential back-office software and services, particularly marketing automation platforms and customer relationship management software (CRMs), comes in very handy.
    You should be able to send leads directly from your webinar registration forms into your CRM. If your CRM software has “lead scoring” features, post-event attendee data can help you determine how viable each of those webinar leads might be and how urgently you should follow up. Functional integrations between webinar platforms and CRMs can save you a ton of time, particularly if you’ve put together a popular webinar that attracts hundreds or thousands of attendees. Integrating your webinar software with your marketing software also makes it much easier to follow up with attendees after webinar events.
  • Automated follow-ups
    The work doesn’t end when your attendees sign off and your camera goes dark. Webinars, even those offered as part of paid educational packages, can benefit from automatic follow-ups. These follow-ups are usually delivered in several intervals.
    The first batch is sent after webinar registration via email (some services may also allow you to send text messages), at least once or twice before the big day, to remind registrants to show up before the webinar starts. After you’re done, follow-ups can collect feedback, deepen your connection with attendees, and attempt to draw those attendees further into any relevant sales funnels.
    These follow-ups are usually sent through the webinar provider, so you don’t need to integrate your marketing tools to remind registrants to sign up. However, webinar services’ follow-up capabilities are somewhat limited, so you should be ready to move the conversation from automated webinar-related messaging to the main email list(s) you maintain.

Advantages of online webinar solutions

Webinars are quite beneficial to many businesses. They’re excellent for capturing leads and are often more effective at selling high-ticket products and services than static landing pages. That doesn’t mean a webinar is the right solution for every marketing problem. However, using a good webinar service can help you in a number of ways:

Provide greater detail on your offer

Build the audience’s trust in you as an authority

Create a stronger and more well-defined brand

Easily scale with pre-recorded content

Easily interact with attendees if presenting live

Engage people visually—most people are visual learners

Track webinar effectiveness and engagement with analytics tools

Build your email list and/or lead list

Disqualify “bad” prospects

Set potential customers’ expectations before making sales calls

A webinar can be a great way to quickly establish a startup or consultant as a valuable resource and/or expert in their field. If your audience believes you’ve delivered on your webinar’s promise, they’re more inclined to believe other claims you make and other pitches you might have queued up. If you can keep people engaged, they’ll probably remember attending your webinar better than they would’ve remembered any article they could've read.

Common problems with online webinar tools

Not all webinar tools are created equal. Some may be harder to use than they’re worth. Some limit the size of your audience or the length of your presentation. But you should be able to find a webinar solution that works for you. The problems you’ll run into, after settling on a solution, will come down to what’s happening on the other side of the screen.

If you can’t put together a compelling presentation, if you haven’t practiced and stumble over your words, if your content feels half-baked and unoriginal, or if you don’t tie your webinar back to your sales pitch, you’re likely to find that the webinar won’t do its job of converting customers. A bad webinar presentation can be worse than none at all, so don’t take shortcuts with the content of your slides or speech. Take the time to practice and polish your presentation, and you might wind up with a webinar that’ll work for years.

Which webinar software is the best?

Different businesses, and even different products or services offered by the same company, may require different webinar solutions.

You might want a large-capacity webinar with the ability to break out multiple “rooms” with different speakers for your online events. If you’re trying to sell a fairly stable service like copywriting or tax planning, you may want to create a pre-recorded evergreen webinar you can use for a long time. A business that regularly releases new products, features, or services might need to be able to manage a number of different webinars simultaneously, with some offered live and some presented in a pre-recorded format.

Before selecting a webinar software provider, make sure you have a good understanding of your audience, their needs, and how you can solve them. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Would you want to sit through an hour-long webinar walkthrough of a new software suite module? Probably not. On the other hand, many business owners (and aspiring entrepreneurs) might gladly sit through an hour-long webinar about how to cope with calamities, so long as you give them useful information and don’t spend all your time trying to close a sale.

Attendees to a current-events-inspired webinar are more likely to want to ask questions, so live chat and/or Q&A functionality can be important for the coronavirus webinar. On the other hand, an evergreen webinar about tax planning would probably surface questions best answered on a case-by-case basis via email.

Remember, a webinar is typically used early in a business’s sales funnel. It can have a major impact on how your potential customers perceive you and your offers. It’s worth taking the time to plan ahead, to prepare a strong presentation, to know your audience, and to choose the webinar software that does what you need, at a price that makes sense for your business.

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